What to Expect After a Heart Attack

Most people survive their first heart attack and go on to live active, productive lives. So if you’ve had a heart attack, there’s no need to despair. You will, however, need to make some lifestyle changes. 

What to Expect After a Heart AttackPhoto: ShutterStock

About ten per cent of people who have heart attacks will have another one within a year of leaving the hospital, though that risk drops to about three per cent every year afterwards. Increase your odds by taking control of your health!

Healing

Recovering from a heart attack usually takes about six weeks, but that varies, depending on both the size of the attack, and whether there were any complications.  

“The ‘scar’ within the heart muscle takes three to six months to completely form,” says Nicholas Giacomantonio, a cardiologist with the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, “and medications are critically important to minimize its size and the remaining heart muscle’s response to it.”  

Dr. Giacomantonio says the most important first step is to recovery is to attend a cardiac rehabilitation program. A recent study indicates that those who do experience lower risk of cardiac death, fewer second heart attacks and fewer necessary cardiac surgeries, learned how to modify their lifestyle. 

Though Giacomantonio says rehabilitation should be the standard of care, he says fewer than 25 per cent of eligible patients attend.  

Lifestyle Changes

If you’ve had a heart attack, it’s important that you make changes to prevent it happening again.

“The traditional big five risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and obesity,” says Dr. Giacomantonio.  “Family history and age are factors, too, but we can’t do much about those, despite our best efforts!”  

He recommends maintaining a healthy diet that’s low in fat and salt, and high in fiber.  Dr. Giacomantonio also recommends cutting back on simple starches like white bread and pasta.

Get Some Exercise

Though many people fear exercise will trigger another heart attack, the opposite is true-it actually helps speed recovery. Physical activity should start as soon as possible after a heart attack-even walking around the hospital ward is a help. Once you’ve been discharged, keep on a regular, comfortable walking regimen, increasing your distances gradually with time.  

Start, for example, by walking around the house, then around the block until you feel strong enough to walk the entire neighbourhood. Exercise will also help with weight control, ease stress and depression, and help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Physical activity will also help increase your energy-though resting when you start to feel tired is important, too!  

Dealing with Depression

It’s common to feel depressed after surviving a heart attack.  

“That’s because you really recognize your own mortality,” says Dr. Giacomantonio.  But if you’ve ever suffered from depression in the past, even at a mild “subclinical” degree, it can easily become permanent if left untended, so it’s important to get help.   

Susan Yeo, a community mental health counsellor based in Brockville, says patients may initially experience feelings of grief, or loss, after a heart attack.  “You feel that you can no longer count on your body to do what it once did,” says Yeo, “or you may be grieving for the life you had.”

She says it’s important for heart attack patients to spend time rediscovering their life’s purpose, particularly if it’s changed because of the heart attack. If you were a workaholic, for example, you may decide to invest your energy in your family instead.

The Benefits of a Romp

Having a heart attack doesn’t relegate you to a life of celibacy! You can start having sex again in two  to four  weeks. As with other forms of exercise, sex is beneficial, but be sure to start out slowly and work your way up to your regular routine.

If a standard position is uncomfortable, try another one until you find something that works for both partners.  And like with all aspects of your recovery, talk with your doctor if you have any concerns.

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